I was playing a game of hypotheticals yesterday, wondering what my life would have been like had certain central elements be different. I got to the question of "what would I have been like if I were not a religious Jew?"
Now here's the thing -- if someone were to ask me what I would be if I didn't have the faith I have as a Jew, I would probably not know what to answer. In one sense, I would be whatever was part of the faith I did have. I didn't choose to believe; it is just part of who I am, having been inculcated in me from a young age. I can't choose not to believe any more than I can choose to be a lefty or choose to like the Yankees. It just isn't who I am. So, had I been brought up as a Christian, I'd be a Christian. I think that maybe part of it is that I have a very strong faith in my own parents -- their tutelage and the life they modeled made the academic and discrete religious belief into that complete lifestyle which is why it stuck. There were no hypocrites in my house growing up so faith made sense all the time.
But on the other hand, I do have to say that of all positions which i can even somewhat fathom, the only one that makes any sense is atheism. I mean, really -- look at any religious belief from the position of an outsider. Rituals which requires a variety of bizarre behaviors, beliefs which are predicated on irrational acceptance of that which cannot be proven, texts which, were they not imbued with religious significance, wouldn't make the fiction bestseller list because reviewers would point out the lack of believable characters, plot structure or consistent voice. I don't believe because some overt miracle slapped me in the face so I can see that someone who needs such a miracle would be confused by what appears to be my choice to accept that which doesn't fit with anything else I accept or embrace.
So what would have happened had I been brought up to apply that critical and scientific/rational lens to beliefs and reject any theology, or even the idea of the divine? Different schools, that's for sure. More free time in the evenings and the weekends. But I wasn't a social person -- would this have increased the number of friends I had because they would have been from the neighborhood, or reduced it because it would have underscored my isolation (is my personality a fixed part of me or a function of something else)? Would I have read less, having no Sabbath with electronics forbidden? Would I have been more overweight with more foods at my gustatory disposal? Would having more friends have meant less time on a computer, and thus less tech-savviness? Or would I have had access to all the tech stuff on the weekends which I was kept out of? Maybe I would have stayed in Junior-Minor League (that is 3 steps below Little League). I got home from school late and didn't have Friday nights and Saturdays for practice and games due to the Sabbath.
Different schools, friends (and waistlines) would have lead to different college choices and from there, clearly a different life. Could I have gotten interested in radio anyway, but been willing to work Saturdays? Or move around the country because I didn't need to stay near a Jewish community? What about summers? Both as a camper and a counselor, my decisions had to stay rooted in the Jewish experience. I would not have had the challenges (or learned the lessons that rising above challenges brings) and would have become a different person. Maybe I could have been good at math. Maybe not.
Let's say that I still became an English teacher. here would I work? The whole of the US public school system would be available to me. I could have gone for one of those jobs in Hawaii! Or maybe I would still have wanted to stay near my family (if my sister had not been brought up Jewish/religious, she wouldn't have moved to Israel -- but would she have moved SOMEWHERE because the wanderlust is hard wired?). And how would I approach Shakespeare? My teaching now is infused with a religious sensibility. I understand not only the Jewish aspect of characters (like a Shylock) but the position of minorities in the text. Were I not the product of minority status, would I appreciate the characterization of Othello as well? I use talmudic logic in my teaching but that would be gone as well -- precious few literary students learn the talmud for the heck of it. Would I be less effective at my job? Would I empathize less, or teach less well? Or would I have been able to spread my wings and read and travel and experience literature in ways I currently can't, and thus be an even better teacher?
And as a dad? Would my politics, my morals, my values be different? How much of what I profess beyond religion is actually an end result of religion? How much is a result of books I have read (the volume of which is the result of the free time that the Sabbath gave me) and how much is because of the experiences which I had. Could I have achieved any heights of even atheistic spirituality (almost a Romantic/Buddhist oneness with the world) or would I have sunk to depths of depravity? Would I have even had any family? Am I where I am because religion saved from a fate worse than death or am I ONLY where I am for the exact same reason?
And then I remember -- I'm the father of great kids. I have a beautiful wife, a steady job, a house in the suburbs. I have parents who didn't drive me in to therapy, siblings with whom I basically get along, friends who put up with my craziness, and a sense of purpose and meaning that gives me cause to wake up in the morning. Playing hypotheticals shouldn't get in the way of what I am in reality, and I'm pretty OK with that.